The proportion of students from China's rural areas attending key universities has been falling significantly since the 1990s.
The high cost of a university education plus the difficulty of finding a job after graduation has contributed to the prevailing idea in the countryside that "education is useless," the People's Daily reported.
Entrance to elite universities is also becoming more difficult for students from the countryside because of fewer education resources or opportunities to travel.
Top universities favor students with a wider knowledge of the world and have developed other skills in addition to their high test scores alone, the newspaper said.
Peking University has about 10 percent of its students from rural areas at present, down from the 30 percent between the 1970s and early 1990s. Similar figures were reported at other universities, including Tsinghua University, also in Beijing, and Fudan University in Shanghai.
Huang Keke, a student at Peking University, was the first person from her hometown—Xiliu Village in Shaanxi Province—to go to such a top university. She had to apply for postgraduate study to give her an edge in the job market because she couldn't find a job.
She said her father has become disillusioned with higher education and believed it would have been better for his children to have looked for work earlier.
Her brother Huang Lei didn't sit the college entrance examination but started work on a construction site instead.
The rural poor, the newspaper said, used to believe that "education changes fate" but feel that is no longer true as they see more and more graduates returning home after failing to find a job.
Many families reportedly have been made poorer because of the cost of higher education. Sending a son or daughter to university could cost the equivalent of a family's income for 10 years in Gansu Province's Huining County. Half the families who had been lifted out of poverty had returned to that state again because of their investment in higher education.